Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Third Plate

This week, my newsfeed had a trailer for a documentary that apparently blasts some of the leading environmental organizations for failure to rail against hamburgers. Several other headlines informed me that eating beef results in more greenhouse emissions than driving a car, apparently extrapolating from a study recently published in the journal Climatic Change. And Elizabeth Kolbert writes in the New Yorker of her week-long experiment with the trendy paleo diet and laments the damage so much meat eating could have on the climate.

Never in human history have we been presented with such an an abundance of food choices as at the average U.S. supermarket, and never before have we seen so much hand-wringing about what to eat. As Dan Barber reminds us in The Third Plate, only a few generations ago, human diets were largely restricted to what the local region produced. Cuisine and culture were intrinsically linked to place.

In recent years, the farm-to-table movement featuring prominent chefs such as Mr. Barber, has sought to reacquaint diners with the sources of their food. Farmers' markets have proliferated and the term"locavore" is in the dictionary. In my small town, several restaurants proudly list the nearby farms and producers contributing to their menus.

Yet the resulting "second plate" of farm-to-table goodness still closely resembles the "first plate" it aimed to replace, which at the American table is meat-centric and flanked by a limited supporting cast. Mr. Barber envisions a "third plate" representing a sort of nose-to-tail for the whole farm, incorporating and starring crops that currently may not be beloved, or even known, to diners but are important to the ecology of the land. Chefs, he says, can use their skills to create demand for these oft-discarded goodies, from the bycatch of tuna nets to the cover crops of wheat fields.

Few chefs are better positioned to expound on this than Mr. Barber, who incorporates a farm and educational center as part of his flagship restaurant north of New York City. Nearly all of his journeys to investigate spectacular foodstuffs result in an experimental planting or livestock introduction at the farm, and the mouth-watering prose in which he describes these experiments may have some readers vowing to never again cook polenta until they, too, can get their hands on some Eight Row Flint corn.

If this planet is to support 9 billion humans by mid-century without absolutely devastating every other species, we must get over our predilection to "eat high on the hog." Unfortunately, so many previous calls to mend our dietary ways -- whether the motive is to improve health, environment, economy or even mood -- have led many to equate virtuous eating with limitation. Mr. Barber, thankfully, is an immensely talented chef who refuses to sacrifice flavor for virtue, and he makes a convincing case (one I wish I could taste for myself at his restaurant) that such a compromise is unnecessary.

Now to size up a plot in my backyard for a patch of wheat.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Circle

I suspect Dave Eggers does not like the internet, and after reading The Circle, I'm reassessing my online habits to ensure I'm not under the spell of a cyber Pied Piper. While this novel isn't quite successful as a novel, it will provoke some thoughts on privacy in the digital age, the power we've ceded to giant tech companies, and the danger of embracing new technologies without scrutiny or limits.

Major new technologies have always been disruptive. If I could time travel into the past to stop an invention before it got out of control, I would bring photos of clogged freeways to 1908 and try to persuade Henry Ford to rethink his Model T. Other denizens of the 21st century might prefer to slow or stop the Industrial Revolution; some yearn for a pre-agricultural existence. It is impossible to know for certain which aspects of the Information Age our descendants in the next century will wish had never happened. Mr. Eggers is not alone in finding the ubiquity of social media obnoxious, but it could be a passing fad and its most significant legacy our collective and voluntarily surrendered privacy.

Of course, thanks to the internet, many summaries and reviews of this novel are easily accessible, so I'll forego a rehashing of the plot, which is thin. More attention is given to the theme of seductive-and-ever-encroaching-cyberstate than to character development or plotting. The internet-bashing theme is not subtle or nuanced, and that could be off-putting to readers who prefer novels that don't bludgeon them with a message.

Despite its length, this was an easy weekend read and I was engaged with the story, mostly because I was expecting something exciting to happen just ahead. In that, I was disappointed. Still, I don't regret reading it. A little examination of our personal and cultural relationships with digital technology couldn't hurt.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Drums of Autumn

Notice: knitting content ahead!

I don't know what else to say about Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series, so I'll just note that I've finished the fourth book, Drums of Autumn. I'm sure to read the next one after I catch up on some non-fiction titles due back at the library soon.

All of this reading about Scotland has made me desperately want to visit that country and has put me in the mind of Scottish-related activities, such as knitting. [In the last book, Jamie taught Claire to knit, because is there anything Jamie can't do?]  Scotland has a vibrant knitting tradition and is home to one of my favorite pattern designers, Alice Starmore. Recalling that I have yarn for one of her fisherman sweaters, I'm eager to begin work on it. But I have that pesky cardigan to finish first.

So last night, during a bad movie I didn't finish, I picked up my knitting bag and attempted to make my progress on the unpleasant sweater. I've gone too far to abandon it. Only the sleeves and finishing remain.

Incidentally, the bad movie was Highlander. I saw it on a list of films featuring Scotland, but it wasn't my kind of thing.

And finally, I've managed a post with all three topics: knitting, books and movies!

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Happy City

I'm now in the second half of my 2014 challenge to read a book a week and I'm slightly ahead of pace, which is fortuitous as the next three books in my queue range from 450 to 900 pages.

Of this year's (so far) 28 completed books, the tome I just finished is the only one I wish I could force all of my fellow citizens to read. Those of us interested in urbanism have been schooled in the benefits of shaping our cities to a scale suited for humans rather than designing them to facilitate motorized traffic. Human-scaled cities, in which the tyranny of cars is minimized so that residents feel comfortable navigating public space, can reduce pollution, improve health, and save money. In Happy City, Canadian writer Charles Montgomery focuses on another benefit that is often overlooked: good urban design can make us happier.

bike rack, St. Paul, Minn.
Drawing on the findings of psychologists and sociologists as well as designers, architects, planners and philosophers, Montgomery considers both the large and small elements of design contributing to well-being. That happiness is increased when the view out the window is a lovely body of water rather than a cement wall will come as no surprise. But quite likely, very few people are aware that the arrangement of windows and doors in buildings will impact their comfort and enjoyment when walking by at street level, or that the height and layout of living spaces can influence residents' relationships with each other.

As in most books and articles touching on the movement known as New Urbanism, suburbia does not get much love in Happy City. However, Montgomery refrains from vilifying sprawl. He notes that some people enjoy suburban living and he does not condemn that preference. The family with the one-acre lot on a cul de sac in Rockville is just as entitled to their happiness as are the apartment denizens of Dupont Circle (my example). However, as other writers have argued, Montgomery agrees that urban dwellers should not be subsidizing the inefficiencies of sprawl, and the gap between supply and demand of housing in walkable communities needs to be reduced so that this choice is available to more who want it.

Montgomery travels the world to highlight places where human-scaled design interventions have met with utilitarian success such as Bogota, Vancouver, Portland, London, and, of course, Copenhagen [note to self: must stop googling Danish immigration policies]. Ultimately, this is a call for citizen activism (with a supporting website), to inspire neighbors and "citadins" that the road to happiness is more easily walked together.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Dragonfly in Amber

I fear I'm on the path to insanity.

Last month in my review of Outlander, the first in a series of eight (so far) extremely lengthy time-travel romance novels by Diana Gabaldon, I confessed to having the second book on hold at the library already. I went through the nearly 800 pages of Dragonfly in Amber like it was a box of See's dark California brittle and I'm already half-way through the third. I'm hopelessly addicted and I suspect I will read little else until I've finished the series, plus the accompanying novellas and short stories. I'm also planning to upgrade my cable service to include STARZ so I can watch the televised series beginning in August.

I won't write a summary of any of these books because such blurbs are widely available on the internet and can be spoilers. I'll limit my remarks to my opinions. Dragonfly was even more of a can't-put-down read than Outlander, and -- a warning to those who haven't read it yet but might -- it ends on a cliffhanger which will compel the reader to immediately begin Voyager.

Enough writing. I must get back to reading.